IBM has refined its silicon-germanium chip-manufacturing technology to produce transistors that are far thinner than others. As a result, information can travel faster or at the same speed using far less power.
The new transistor is capable of operating at 210GHz using just 1 milliamp of electrical current, or about 80 percent faster than current technology while using half as much power.
IBM said the technique should pave the way for networking chips that can run at 80GHz, or twice as fast as today's fastest silicon-based chips. If successful, IBM could help chip designers avoid having to move more of their processors to more exotic materials such as gallium arsenide or indium phosphide.
"Silicon just wasn't going to go to these speeds," said IBM Fellow Bernard Meyerson, who is also vice president of the company's communications research and development center in East Fishkill, N.Y. "In a nutshell, we've raised the bar dramatically."
IBM has been a leader in blending germanium and silicon atoms to produce a material that conducts electricity more efficiently than pure silicon. Though IBM has been working with silicon-germanium for about a decade, the latest advance allows the company to make transistors--the building blocks of chips--that are only 100 atoms to 200 atoms thick at the base.
"That's what really makes this work," Meyerson said.
The first chips to use the new technology will likely be networking chips that help guide data on and off of high-speed fiber-optic lines. When operated at lower power levels, the chips could also find their way into cell phones, particularly for radio components, analysts said.
Pathfinder Research analyst Fred Zieber said the development should help keep that technology competitive with other materials.
"It gives the potential customer base the warm fuzzies and makes them less anxious to try these other things," Zieber said.
Dataquest analyst Stan Bruederle said one of the possible beneficiaries of the new technology is Applied Micro Circuits, which has been using IBM's silicon-germanium process, while rival Vitesse Semiconductor has focused on chips based on gallium arsenide.
"Now, with this technology, (Applied Micro Circuits) can continue to use silicon for the highest-performing applications in fiber-optic communication," Bruederle said.
Although others are working with silicon-germanium, analysts say IBM is the clear leader.
"IBM's got a big lead on everybody at this point," Zieber said.